Caesarea Maritima

by Pastor Ed Visser

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment… The following day Peter arrived in Caesarea. Acts 10:1, 24
When the cavalry arrived in Caesarea, they delivered the letter to the governor and handed Paul over to him.… Then he ordered that Paul be kept under guard in Herod’s palace. Acts 23:33, 35

Caesarea–by–the–Sea (Maritima) was a purely Roman city. Built by Herod on the sandy coast of the Mediterranean, it was a city dedicated to Caesar Augustus and became an important seaport for Roman ships. Since there was no natural port on Israel’s coastline, Herod made one from scratch, using some newly invented cement that dried underwater, one of Herod’s greatest feats.

Roman AqueductSince there was no fresh water in the area, Herod also constructed seven miles of aqueduct, which brought water from Mt Carmel. He also equipped Caesarea with all the accoutrements of a Roman city: amphitheater, a hippodrome for horse races, and a huge theater conveniently located near the palace. A large temple, also in honor of Augustus, greeted the ships sailing into the harbor, apparently the first thing one saw from the sea.

Herod also built himself a palace, which stood on a promontory jutting out into the Mediterranean with its requisite Herodian pool. Herod could swim in fresh water while watching Roman ships sail in across the sea. The base of the palace and swimming pool are still visible today. Since the city Herodian Harborbecame the capital of Judea, this would be where Herod, his sons, and later governors of Judea would spend most of their time. Pilate also lived here, and a stone with his inscription was actually found in the reconstruction of the Caesarean theater.

Despite not being a very Jewish city, Caesarea does become the stage for a couple of events in the book of Acts. It was Caesarea where the first Gentile convert of the early Christian church lived, a Roman soldier by the name of Cornelius. The Apostle Peter was actually summoned to this city to lead him and his family to faith in Jesus Christ, and here, in this Roman city, the Holy Spirit was first poured out on Gentiles.

Caesarea TheaterThe man who would make it his life’s calling to reach out to more Gentiles, the Apostle Paul, sailed in and out of this port on his missionary journeys — the last time on his way to Rome itself. Paul was arrested in Jerusalem, but when word of a Jewish plot to kill him surfaced, the Roman guard had him transported to the capital city of Caesarea for a “change of venue.” Paul was actually imprisoned in what was still called Herod’s palace (although I doubt he had use of the pool!). Though a thoroughly Roman city, even Caesarea played a crucial role in New Testament history. Might the sovereign God continue to use pagan cities of this world to fulfill his purposes?

A Parable of a King

by Pastor Ed Visser

A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return … But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, “We don’t want this man to be our king.”
Luke 19:12,14

Near the end of a long day in the Judean desert, our tour group made our final stop at Jericho. Being a Palestinian city, entry was controlled by the Israeli military (in the last few years, Jericho was given over to Palestinian control). After about 30 minutes, we were given permission to enter — a rather rare feat. The city itself has been ruined by a poor Palestinian economy. Our interest, however, was a different sort of ruins.

Jericho PalaceWe made our way along Wadi Qelt (a dry riverbed) until we came upon the ruins of Herod’s palace across the wadi. What must have been magnificent in its day was in ruins and being over-run that day by a flock of goats. Just to our left (west), were the hills to which the Israelite spies escaped when scouting out Jericho (Joshua 2:16-24). In front of the palace and through these hills was the beginning of the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, made famous in Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable.

But our attention was drawn to a different story in the Bible. In Luke 19, just after Jesus had encountered Zacchaeus in Jericho, he continued on his way toward Jerusalem and the cross that awaited him. His route would have been the Jericho road. And, at some time, he and his disciples (and others making their way to Jerusalem for Passover) would have walked right past this palace of Herod the Great — now used by his son, Herod Antipas, when he was in town. But before Antipas, it was used by another son of Herod, Archelaus, who was king of Judea for about ten Beginning of Jericho Roadyears. As dreadful a king as Herod the Great was, Archelaus was much worse. After Herod died, Archelaus went to Rome to ask to be made king over Judea in his father’s stead. A delegation of Jews also went there to dissuade Caesar from naming Archelaus king. Once he was given rule over Judea, Archelaus had his enemies killed ruthlessly. Within 10 years, after another Jewish request to Rome, Archelaus was deposed.

As Jesus tells the parable of the minas in Luke 19:11-27, he puts it in terms of a man going away to be named king, whose enemies oppose him but are eventually killed. Given the fact that Jesus was leaving Jericho to go to Jerusalem, it is very likely that he used the occasion of passing Herod’s palace to tell a story right out of the pages of their recent history! While his point in the parable has nothing to do with Archelaus, we see the typical way Jesus taught: drawing on current events and local landmarks to teach truths about a very different King and kingdom — the Kingdom of God. It reminds us of the importance of being able to apply truths of Scripture to the events of our world & lives.

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem

by Pastor Ed Visser

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over the flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them … “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”
Luke 2:8-11

Bethlehem shepherd fieldOne of the places I was able to visit while in Israel was the “little town of Bethlehem.” I say this with gratitude because, despite all the peaceful scenes of Bethlehem on our Christmas cards, today it is often a place of strife, off limits to tourists.

Bethlehem is found in the central hill country of Israel, surprisingly close to Jerusalem. It is also on the border between the farm belt and the wilderness — literally right across the road from each other — so farmers like Boaz and shepherds like David coexisted here (a little more peacefully than Palestinians and Israelis!). One sign of that is especially apparent in the fall: for the only time all year, sheep are allowed to graze in farmers’ fields. It proves a symbiotic relationship: sheep, normally confined to desert grazing, get the crop leftovers but also leave behind fertilizer for the upcoming growing season.

This phenomenon, which occurs only in “frontier” towns, may explain the wording of Luke 2:8 that the shepherds were “in the fields” nearby Bethlehem. If so, it dates Jesus’ birth to sometime in the summer or fall (perhaps in conjunction with the Feast of Sukkot?). But the fact that these sheep were in the Bethlehem area also suggests another insight: that they were Temple flocks being raised for sacrifice. The Mishnah tells us that only sheep from the flocks of Bethlehem were to be used for this purpose. Is this an additional pointer toward Jesus, the sacrificial lamb of God?

Another feature of the area is the Herodian fortress-palace, which actually casts a shadow over the herodian fortresstown of Bethlehem in the early morning. From the top, one can see not only Bethlehem but even Jerusalem to the west, as well as a good view of the wilderness to the east. Every person in the Christmas story — whether Mary & Joseph, the shepherds, the Magi, Simeon & Anna — would have to “buy into” the idea that this poor child was the true King of the world, when King Herod’s presence was so obvious and ominous nearby.

It certainly took a lot of faith to be part of that first Christmas story set in Bethlehem. But it takes no less faith today — when so many other “kings” vie for our attention, when evil sometimes seems enthroned — to cast our lot with that unblemished Lamb born in Bethlehem to be the sacrifice to atone for our sins. Have you cast your lot for him?